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Critical Essay by Bruce Bawer
SOURCE: "Graham Greene: The Catholic Novels," in The New Criterion, Vol. 8, No. 2, October, 1989, pp. 24-32.
In the following essay, Bawer examines Greene's Catholic conversion, his personal faith, and the significance of Catholicism in The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and A Burnt-Out Case.
In his long and celebrated literary career—which I began to examine in the last issue of The New Criterion—Graham Greene has written some three dozen novels, "entertainments," plays, essays, memoirs, short story collections, and travel books. But it is those books which, for want of a better term, we may call his Catholic novels (The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and A Burnt-Out Case) and his later political novels (The Quiet American, The Comedians, The Honorary Consul, and The Human Factor) that are generally acknowledged, for better or worse, to comprise the nucleus of his oeuvre. Though there are other works by Greene that have scattered and enthusiastic support, critics who speak of Greene's literary mastery tend almost exclusively to cite some or all of the books on this list as evidence of that mastery; and it is the Catholic novels that are mentioned most frequently of all. This being the case, it seems necessary to devote special attention to those books, and to ask certain questions in connection with them, namely: How did Greene come to Catholicism? In what form did Catholicism, in turn, come to enter his work? What does religious faith mean to him, and what role does it play in his fiction?
Considering that Graham Greene is one of the world's most respected Catholic writers, the story of his introduction to the Roman Catholic faith is somewhat less than inspiring. In 1925 Greene met and fell in love with a Catholic girl named Vivien Dayrell-Browning, who declared that she would not marry him unless he converted to her faith. He did so within the year, although Norman Sherry's account, in his recent biography of Greene, shows no evidence of a real conversion, and Greene (in his memoir A Sort of Life) is oddly vague and noncommittal: "I can only remember that in January 1926 I became convinced of the probable existence of something we call God, though I now dislike the word with all its anthropomorphic associations and prefer Chardin's 'Omega Point.'" Greene's references to Catholicism in his letters of the period are flippant, as is his reminiscence of his Catholic instruction: "Now it occurred to me, during the long empty mornings, that if I were to marry a Catholic I ought at least to learn the nature and limits of the beliefs she held. It was only fair, since she knew what I believed—in nothing supernatural. Besides, I thought, it would kill the time." (To "kill the time" has, of course, always been an important end for Greene.) For the most part, then, Greene seems to have looked upon his conversion to Catholicism in the same way that he looked upon his youthful association with the German embassy and his entry into the Communist Party—namely, as a means to other ends, in this case marriage to Vivien.
Though the time came when Greene found it useful to place Catholic doctrines and characters at the center of his work, true Catholic piety and reflectiveness have continued to seem alien to him. He has often described himself, paradoxically, as a "Catholic agnostic." Certainly he has never made any bones about his distrust of orthodox Catholic theology, his utter lack of curiosity about the intellectual underpinnings of the Church. One cannot help but connect him, in this regard, with Henry Pulling's dotty, lawless Aunt Augusta in Travels with My Aunt, who, upon being asked if she is really a Roman Catholic, replies, "Yes, my dear, only I just don't believe in all the things they believe in." For Greene, intellectual assent to a set of doctrines prescribed by somebody else has little or nothing to do with being a Catholic; he has always felt free to accept or discard various elements of Roman dogma as he sees fit, and to contort Catholic precepts beyond recognition in order to suit his own psychological needs.
At times, indeed, Greene seems to have disposed of so much of Catholicism that there would appear to be no particular reason to call it Catholicism and not something else. Like Maurice, his protagonist in The End of the Affair, he "find[s] it hard to conceive of any God who is not as simple as a perfect equation, as clear as air." Greene much prefers a primitive religion to a doctrinaire, over intellectualized one; he obviously shares the feeling of Dr. Colin, the African-based leprosy specialist in A Burnt-Out Case, when he comments that "it's a strange Christianity we have here, but I wonder whether the Apostles would find it as difficult to recognize as the collected works of Thomas Aquinas. If Peter could have understood those, it would have been an even greater miracle than Pentecost, don't you think? Even the Nicaean Creed—it has the flavour of higher mathematics to me." At one point Querry, the book's protagonist, goes so far as to say that "it would be a good thing for all of us if we were even more superficial."
In this connection, it should be observed that Catholicism served Greene for many years as the locus—the essentially arbitrary locus—of something that he called "faith." A remark that Greene made in a 1986 interview with the Literaturnaya Gazeta is of interest. In the interview, he nonchalantly politicized the story of his conversion for the Soviet editors: "The nearer fascism came to us, and the more it spread all over the world, the more necessary it was to oppose it by building moral obstacles to it in the consciousness of the masses. It is here that I opted for faith…. I felt it necessary to make faith the symbol of resistance." Patently dishonest though this anti-fascist version of Greene's conversion may be, there is a truth at its center: namely, that Catholicism has generally functioned, in Greene's personal metaphysics, as a sort of escape hatch from the cold-eyed realism of which he is so proud; despite his professed loathing of romanticism, and his much-vaunted "realistic" attitude toward the Western world, the capitalistic system, and the United States, Greene's "faith" has provided him with a means of holding what are basically romantic views of certain aspects of life—in particular of Marxist ideas, exploits, and leaders. As the narrator remarks in The Heart of the Matter, "[I]f romance is what one lives by, one must never be cured of it. The world has too many spoilt priests of this faith or that: better surely to pretend a belief than wander in that vicious vacuum of cruelty and despair."
In its emphasis on faith, on the individual's personal relationship with God, and on a vigorous suspicion of prescribed doctrine, Greene's personal version of Christianity might seem to some observers more Protestant (if anything) than Catholic. Yet time and again Greene has gone out of his way to belittle Protestantism in general and the Anglicanism of his birth in particular. At times, indeed, he writes as if it were agreed by the whole world that Catholicism were the only real religion—the only one, that is to say, which can truly inhabit a soul and bring a communicant closer to God—and Anglicanism nothing more than a social club, a collection of pompous, empty rituals whose participants give no thought to virtue or sin or the deity. "You are an Englishman," a Portuguese captain says to Scobie, a colonial policeman, in The Heart of the Matter. "You wouldn't believe in prayer." Scobie counters, "I'm a Catholic, too." Later in the novel, Scobie reflects that his mistress, Helen, has it good: since she's not a Catholic, "[s]he's lucky. She's free." The implication here—and elsewhere in Greene's oeuvre—is that non-Catholics are innocents of a sort, bound by no moral code and free of the dark and difficult knowledge that Catholics share. Catholicism, in short, is serious; Anglicanism is vain and frivolous. And yet Greene's easy dismissal of orthodox Catholic thought, his audacious distortion of its precepts to suit his own purposes, and his facile fictional use of such concepts as eternal damnation may well strike some readers—Catholic, Anglican, or otherwise—as the very height of vanity and frivolity.
How did a young man who had been brought up in the Church of England end up such a fervent—if iconoclastic—Catholic? The question brings us back, I think, to Greene's childhood at the Berkhamsted School and to his headmaster father's stern sexual precepts; for the more closely one examines Greene's attitude toward religion, the more strongly one feels that conversion to Catholicism must have seemed, to the young Greene, a perfect way of rejecting his Anglican father, even while, in a sense, he was (consciously or not) perpetuating the old man's moral domination over him. For however much of Catholic doctrine Greene chose to leave out of his personal version of the religion, he certainly retained—and, it might be argued, blew out of all proportion—Catholicism's strict views on sex and marriage. In the process he managed to make of the Catholic Church (at least in terms of its sexual teachings) a veritable replica of the Berkhamsted of his youth. The Catholic protagonists in several of his novels, after all, agonize over the sin of fornication in a way that would have been far more familiar to a tormented Victorian (or, in Greene's case, Georgian) public school boy than it would be to even an unusually devout modern-day Catholic. And so many of his autobiographical protagonists prove to have been educated at seminaries or Jesuit schools that one gets the impression Greene regards such institutions as rough equivalents of Berkhamsted—at least, that is, when it comes to the attitudes toward sex and sin that these schools have inculcated into the souls of their alumni. It is almost as if the young Greene, feeling irrationally guilty as he broke his childhood ties to family and school, found it necessary to replace Berkhamsted with the Catholic Church, and his father with God—and, in the process, also found it necessary to make certain adjustments in Catholicism so that it might more nearly approximate, in temper and teachings, the institution in which he had been raised.
There are other likely reasons for his attraction to Catholicism. Given the fact that Greene, even in his early youth, was a master of suicidal boredom and misanthropic despair, he must surely have seen Roman Catholicism, with its reverence for suffering, as a way of legitimizing his veritable fetishization of misery. Time and again, his Catholic novels equate suffering with life, seriousness, wisdom. "As long as one suffers," he writes in The End of the Affair, "one lives." And in The Heart of the Matter "Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgivable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practices. He always have hope. He never reaches the freezing point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of good will carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation." The epigraph to The End of the Affair is from Léon Bloy: "Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence." Too often, alas, Greene's fixation on suffering seems masochistic, morbid; certainly the notion that religion should be nothing but suffering is as distasteful as the notion that it should be nothing but sweetness and light.
There is one additional factor in Greene's attraction to Catholicism whose importance cannot be underestimated. Norman Sherry's biography mentions only one aspect of Catholicism that genuinely appealed to Greene at the time of his conversion: the belief in hell. As Greene said at the time, "It gives something hard, non-sentimental and exciting." Hard, non-sentimental, and exciting: he might, one cannot but notice, be describing one of his own entertainments. And indeed it seems to have been not so much hell itself but the melodrama of hell, and of Catholicism in general, that captivated the young man. To the thoroughly English Greene, Catholicism must have seemed exotic and Latin, must have appealed not only to his personal sense of alienation but to the thrillermeister's love of the sensational. His Catholic novels, in any event, make it clear that Greene cherishes the drama of sin and eternal damnation: one thinks, for example, of the scene in The Heart of the Matter in which Scobie, taking communion in a state of mortal sin, is "aware of the pale papery taste of his eternal sentence on the tongue." What other religion could provide higher drama?
Traces of Greene's distinctive view of Catholicism—or of its development—appear in virtually all of Greene's novels. But it reaches its apotheosis in four of them: The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and A Burnt-Out Case. Taken together, these books almost seem to have been designed as a set of Greenian Articles of Faith. The chief tenets of this faith—among them the notion of experience as the road to metaphysical knowledge, of prodigious sin as the path to saintliness—are explored tirelessly in these books; if various other Greene novels convey the idea that it is important to have some kind of faith or to take a stand on one side or the other of a given contest, these four novels spell out Greene's specific brand of faith with considerable precision. Each of them contains a major character who is a sinner, whose central conflict is his struggle with faith, and whose struggle ends in death; invariably, the assumptions upon which the conflict takes place, the terms in which it is presented, and the conclusions which are drawn from its outcome derive entirely from Greene's own iconoclastic version of Catholicism.
For instance, The Power and the Glory (1940), set in socialist Mexico in the 1930s, takes as its protagonist a cowardly alcoholic priest who has married one woman and fathered a child by another. This "whiskey priest" (whose name we never learn) is the last Roman Catholic cleric remaining in a province where it's been declared a crime to say Mass; like many a Greene hero, he spends much of the book on the lam from the authorities. This simply structured novel is dense with evocations of rural poverty and with pronouncements about various spiritual topics—good and evil, love and lust, experience and innocence—from which Greene typically doesn't distance himself at all. "[O]ur sins have so much beauty," the whiskey priest declares at one point. "I'm a bad priest, you see. I know—from experience—how much beauty Satan carried down with him when he fell. Nobody ever said the fallen angels were the ugly ones." It is his corruption, the priest says, that has brought him close to God: as a "comparatively innocent" young man, he was "unbearable." (In Greene's novels, of course, innocent men are invariably unbearable.) And indeed we are meant to understand, at the book's conclusion, that for all his sin the priest may well be something of a saint.
Though Greene does not depart radically here from the brisk, lucid manner of his early novels and entertainments, he does—rather like Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls—attempt to modify his characteristic precision and simplicity in the direction of a certain austere stateliness, and thereby to give his "whiskey priest" a magnitude, and even a kind of coarse nobility, that his previous heroes didn't have. As in Hemingway's novel, however, the results of this stylistic modification are questionable. For one thing, the frequent appearance of colons between strings of independent clauses ("The squad of police made their way back to the station: they walked raggedly with rifles slung anyhow: ends of cotton where buttons should have been: a puttee slipping down over the ankle: small men with black secret Indian eyes") seems to have no raison d'être other than the author's affectation; for another, the novel's plainness of style ("He hustled them out: one by one they picked their way across the clearing towards the hut: and the old man set off down the path toward the river to take the place of the boy who watched the ford for soldiers") feels strained and phony in the way of the most self-parodic Hemingway.
Patently, Greene seeks to convey in this novel a solemn, intense vision of the human condition—a vision in which there would appear to be little room for the humor that helps (occasionally, at least) to relieve the darkness of his earlier books. But it's less a vision, really, than a contrivance, a repetitive and deliberate hammering away at the irony of the priest's position as "a damned man putting God into the mouths of men." The priest constantly flagellates himself, and we're plainly meant to be moved by his distress; but because that supposed distress is, for the most part, simply reiterated, rather than being reflected in a serious effort to change his ways, it's hard to take it very seriously. It's hard, for that matter, to believe that Greene takes it seriously: for the novel shows every sign of having been built less upon a passionate devotion to the idea of God than upon a view—at once glib, sentimental, patronizing, and upper-crust-Protestant—of swarthy, dirt-poor, Romance-language-speaking Catholics as close to the earth and, ipso facto, close to the Almighty.
The sinner at the heart of The Heart of the Matter (1948), which takes place during World War II, is Major Scobie, the middle-aged assistant police commissioner in a British colonial town on the West African coast. Described by his superior as "Scobie the Just," by a Syrian trader as "a just man," by a local MI5 agent named Wilson as "too damned honest to live," and by his wife, Louise, as "the typical second man … [t]he one who always does the work," Scobie has been stationed in this town for fifteen years—"too long to go," as he puts it—and he has a rare understanding of and compassion for the natives. He also is a Catholic (he married into the faith) and a loyal husband, and has the sort of less-than-rosy outlook of which Greene approves: "It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn't the test of man have been carried out in fewer years? Couldn't we have committed our first major sin at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen-year-old death bed?"
Love, sin, and redemption are, as it happens, the principal concerns here; and the first intimation of peril comes when Wilson becomes infatuated with Louise. But Scobie's true downfall begins when he encounters a boatful of shipwreck survivors, falls swiftly in love with one of them—a young widow named Helen Rolt—and commences to break his marital vows while Louise is away: "God can wait, he thought: how can one love God at the expense of one of his creatures?" During his affair with Helen, Scobie is insufferable—although Greene doesn't seem to intend for him to be insufferable—about the threat of perdition hanging over his head. "If you believe in hell," Helen asks him, "why are you with me now?" Good question. And after Louise's return, Scobie finds himself in a spiritual bind: if he doesn't take communion with Louise, she'll know he committed a mortal sin; if he does take it with the taint of his adultery on his soul, he will (he believes) be irredeemably damned. In the end, he chooses the latter; and, after taking communion ("O God, I offer up my damnation to you"), whining to Helen about it ("I'm damned for all eternity … What I've done is far worse than murder"), and wallowing for a while in self-pity ("This was what human love had done to him—it had robbed him of love for eternity"), he commits suicide—which, we've been told, "puts a man outside mercy." For those who haven't caught the irony here, Greene has already spelled it out: "Only the man of good will carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation."
With its solemn (if often highly dubious) aphorisms about love, damnation, and eternity, its consistently elevated tone, its sweltering and exotic African setting (whose purpose is perhaps to suggest at once the intensity of Scobie's passions, the extremity of his spiritual crisis, and the torment of hell), and its unyielding focus upon a man's relentless march toward his own everlasting doom, this novel seems to insist, with every sentence, on its own greatness. And many readers, over the years, have agreed that it is great. But is it? For a man who believes that adultery is a path to hell, Scobie certainly doesn't seem to put up much of a struggle against temptation—which makes it hard to take all the rhetoric about God and sin and damnation very seriously. Nor does he try very hard to escape his doom after sleeping with Helen; he presents himself in the confessional, to be sure, but since he can't promise to avoid seeing Helen, the priest can't guarantee a valid absolution. It's absurd: if Scobie truly believes his soul is on the line, why doesn't he do everything in his power to avoid Helen? Or at least, for heaven's sake, skip communion till the romance blows over? His behavior is so irrational, so preposterously gentlemanly, so English; to read about his fate is to feel that a real Catholic could never have invented such a character, a man who would sacrifice his eternal soul to avoid creating a scene.
What Greene has manufactured here is a public school heroic fantasy which has no relevance whatsoever to the real world, Catholic or otherwise; in the person of Scobie, Greene brings together a rigid Catholic faith (which might be found in a certain kind of man) with a readiness to commit adultery (which might be characteristic of another, very different sort of man); combining the two traits, however, results not in a portrait of a complex, full-blooded individual but in an unbelievable concoction that reflects only its creator's obsessions. It may be that the only way one can easily understand Scobie, in real-world terms, is as a man who has for years been waiting for a good reason to kill himself. Certainly his thoughts are full of the subject: he ponders the fact that "[d]eath never comes when one desires it most"; he reflects of his long-deceased daughter that she "was safe now, for ever" (like many Greene characters, he considers death a sanctuary). If The Heart of the Matter is effective, it is largely as a demonstration of the ability of emotionally disturbed individuals to twist religion into a tool of self-destruction.
The End of the Affair (1951), like The Heart of the Matter, depicts a fatal romantic triangle. Set in London and its environs, the novel is described by its narrator and protagonist, a writer named Maurice Bendrix, as "a record of hate far more than of love." As the novel opens in January of 1946, Bendrix learns from his friend Henry Miles, a high ranking member of the government, that Henry's wife, Sarah, may be having an affair; Bendrix is hurt, for unbeknownst to Henry, he had enjoyed a three-year liaison with Sarah himself until, a year and a half earlier, she broke it off inexplicably and Bendrix "began quite seriously to think of suicide." Now, desperate to know the truth, Bendrix engages a detective; the man pinches Sarah's diary, and it is from this document that Bendrix learns why she separated from him. One day, thinking him dead in an air raid, she had prayed to God: "Let him be alive, and I will believe…. I'll give him up for ever, only let him be alive." When Bendrix indeed proved to be alive, Sarah kept her word to God, and ever since has been engaged in a struggle with the idea of God, resenting Him, seeking advice from a financial anti-religionist, and pouring her heart into her diary: "I want Maurice. I want ordinary corrupt human love. Dear God, you know I want to want Your pain, but I don't want it now." Bendrix refuses to take God seriously as a rival, and seeks to revive their affair. But he succeeds only (though an unfortunate happenstance) in bringing about Sarah's death—and learns afterward that she had been taking instruction in Catholicism, a faith into which (though she never knew it) she had been baptized as a child.
In many ways The End of the Affair is one of Greene's best books. It is exquisitely shaped and paced, the people and their relationships seem real, and both the passion and the bitterness ring true; though plenty of abstractions are brought into play, one does not constantly have the feeling that the characters serve merely as symbolic tokens. Yet, reading Sarah's diary account of her discovery of faith, one does want to ask the question: why Catholicism and not Anglicanism? Why must belief in a Creator necessarily lead, in the world according to Greene, to belief—as Sarah puts it—in "the whole bag of tricks" of the Catholic Church? The revelation of Sarah's childhood Catholicism suggests that Greene wants us to see her recent enthusiasm for the faith as some sort of mystical event, a reclaiming of Sarah, as it were, God; but this reading, it seems to me, cheapens the book, turns it into a kind of religious thriller. (Do even pious Catholics believe that God plays such games?) One prefers to think that Sarah chooses Catholicism because it is the one Christian faith that would flatly forbid her to divorce Henry and marry Maurice—an act against which her sense of guilt about the affair rebels. To posit such a reading is not to deny the sublimity of religious faith, but merely to acknowledge the importance—to life, to literature, and even perhaps to God—of human character and psychology; what makes The End of the Affair more successful than The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter is its greater appreciation of that importance.
A Burnt-Out Case (1961), the last of Greene's explicitly Catholic books, is in some ways a departure from its predecessors. It begins, with the mysterious arrival of Querry, a world-famous church architect, at a small Central African leper hospital on a remote tributary of the Congo. Querry has come to the hospital—which is run by Catholic priests and by one Dr. Colin, and which is crowded with "burntout cases" (patients, many of them disfigured and impaired, from whose systems the leprosy infection has totally disappeared)—to finish out his life away from civilization. Why? Because in his own way Querry is a burnt-out case, too: or so, at least, he tells everyone who's ready to listen. Yes, he's perfectly scrupulous, well-functioning: "You are a whole man as far as one can see," says Parkinson, a sleazy reporter who tracks him down to the hospital. But Querry knows better: he's lost his faith. In contrast to his parents' simple, instinctive religion, he had constructed an edifice of logical proofs of the existence of God: but his realization that he didn't truly accept those proofs has caused an emotional crisis. He realizes he's been deceiving himself: he's never really loved ("Perhaps it's true that you can't believe in a god without loving a human being or love a human being without believing in a god"), never built a church for love of anything but himself ("To build a church when you don't believe in a god seems a little indecent, doesn't it?"). He'd always thought himself dedicated to God, but knows now that "anything he had ever done must have been done for love of himself." If Sarah, in The End of the Affair, longs for the suffering that will mark her as a true Christian, Querry is past all that: "I suffer from nothing. I no longer know what suffering is. I have come to an end of all that…." (One of the novel's epigraphs comes from Dante: "I did not die, yet nothing of life remained.")
Over the next few months, Querry assists the priests and helps them plan a new hospital. Ironically, when he saves a man's life he is celebrated as a saint by the ignoble Parkinson, the innocent Father Thomas, and the intellectual M. Rycker (a local factory manager and former seminarian); yet when he is falsely accused of having an affair with Mme. Rycker, those who declared him a saint are the first to condemn him. Interestingly—in what seems to be something of a move away from Greene's earlier concentration on faith, and toward a doctrine of good works—Querry's staunchest ally (and the most sympathetic and level-headed character in the book) is Dr. Colin, who "had long ago … lost faith in any god that a priest would have recognized," but who, despite his atheism, we are manifestly supposed to admire for his tireless dedication to the sick. Likewise, we're supposed to admire the priests (except for Father Thomas), who "would much prefer to talk about turbines" than about canon law, and who are "too busy to bother themselves with what the Church considered sin (moral theology was the subject they were least concerned with)."
And we do admire them. But it's hard to admire Querry. Though he's a decent enough chap, his enthusiasm for his own suffering is wearisome in the extreme; it comes across as the manifestation not of a crisis of faith (as Greene would have us believe) but of severe neurosis. Querry keeps insisting upon his inability to love and to believe, but it's all just words, words, words: his torment is never dramatized, just endlessly proclaimed. And to a large extent, it's simply too weird and too abstract to identify with: he can't make love anymore, he says, because sex should be an enacting of God's love for his people and he can no longer believe in God. We're apparently meant to see all this soul-searching as part of a sacred struggle, but for the most part it seems merely solipsistic, selfish; and it seems especially so because at the léproserie he is surrounded by people—among them many small children—who have a much more visible reason than he does to bewail their fates. Yet not even the sight of armless babies can take Querry out of himself for very long, and Greene doesn't seem to intend the irony: to him, as to Querry, the leprosy patients are basically set decoration, their physical disfigurement a metaphor for Querry's spiritual mutilation. Likewise, when Querry compares his own late, lamented intellectual Catholicism with his parents' "simple and uncomplex heart[s]," Greene doesn't seem to want us to find him arrogant—but of course we do. Even Dr. Colin regards Querry as a privileged character; when a priest suggests that publicity for the hospital might attract funds that could help hundreds of lepers, Dr. Colin rejects the idea because it wouldn't be good for Querry. "Limelight," he says, "is not very good for the mutilated."
There are logical problems with the book, too. The idea of a church architect as celebrity is a bit difficult to buy. And then there are certain questions of motivation: Querry claims to have come to the léproserie in order to escape the world, the Church, labéte humanine; yet, if this is the case, how did he happen to end up as a veritable social worker in a part of Central Africa that seems to contain more Catholics than the Vatican? And why, if he didn't want reporters to track him down, did he give everyone along the way his real name? Greene shows no sign of doubting Querry's motives. Then, as in The Heart of the Matter, there's the suicide angle. "A man can't live with nothing but himself," Dr. Colin says; "[s]ooner or later he would kill himself." Yes, Querry replies, "[i]f he had enough interest." Like Scobie, he seems essentially to be a suicide in search of a catalyst.
For the most part, indeed, all of Greene's so-called Catholic novels seem ultimately to have less to do with religion, per se, than with psychopathology—and, one might add, with melodramatic artifice: as I've suggested in connection with The End of the Affair, it might even he more nearly correct to call them religious thrillers. To be sure, they have been treated very respectfully by critics and readers, and it is true that their deeply afflicted protagonists, their solemn metaphysical utterances, their grand abstraction, their richly symbolic settings, and their tragic endings tend to enforce the impression that Greene is a serious—perhaps even a profound—laborer in the fields of spiritual allegory. Yet to read these books in sequence is to become increasingly aware of the overly manipulated characters, the windy rhetoric, the author's glib misreading of the human heart. There are so many immense abstractions planted so closely together here that few of them have room to grow into life; but then it would be virtually impossible for any story to bear the weight of meaning that Greene seeks to impose on these tales. All four books, furthermore, are informed not only by the extreme notion—as expressed in the Charles Péguy quotation that Greene used as an epigraph to The Heart of the Matter—that "[t]he sinner is at the heart of Christianity," but also by Greene's even more extreme corollary that the greater one's sins are, the closer one is to God, and the more likely one is to be a saint. While this may sound like clever theology, in practice it's simply offensive: if we are to believe such things, then how are we to feel about Hitler? In this and other such pronouncements by Greene, one hears the voice not of a serious moral philosopher but of the melodramatist, the author of thrillers out for sheer effect.
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